Paul Pogba has brought France to World Cup final by keeping it simple
France's 1-0 victory over Belgium in Tuesday's semifinal was one of those days when you wondered whether the same people had watched the same game. A member of FIFA's technical study group, speaking informally to a reporter, put it like this: "If he had a different name on the back of his shirt, he would not be playing. He has not been at his level in this tournament."
Not long thereafter, France boss Didier Deschamps was asked to sum up the very same player's performance. He called him "monstrous," adding that the player in question was "strong, creative, accurate, intelligent and one of the real driving forces of this team.
"He was everywhere. Absolutely everywhere."
The guy they were both talking about is Paul Pogba. Go figure.
In some ways, the dissonance echoes his two seasons at Manchester United. Some still see him as a flashy, Dabbing waste of money, a flop who isn't living up to his price tag as one of the five most expensive players in history. If they're charitable, they'll say the transfer fee Manchester United paid (€105 million, plus a gaggle of fees and commissions) is a burden. If they're not, they'll simply say he was never good enough and was simply a dramatic con job perpetrated by the media and by his agent, Mino Raiola.
Others will defend him, pointing to the fact that only four players had more Premier League assists than Pogba last season (they all played for Manchester City), that media expectations are unreasonably high because it's Manchester United and that manager Jose Mourinho isn't getting the best out of him.
Either way, Pogba is hard to ignore. A man of his size, with his highlight-reel skills, is always going to stand out. The media flock to him. His ability to easily converse in four languages -- his native French, Italian and English but also Spanish, even though he has never lived there -- while being rarely trite and banal in his answers draws more of the spotlight. As do his social media presence and, until recently, his haircut.
Yeah, the hair might be a good place to start. It's a perfect metaphor for his World Cup experience. Because the man who had us accustomed to seeing a whole range of designs, shapes and colors on his head has gone all-business in Russia, turning out with the equivalent of the crew cut an army barber might give you in 30 seconds. It's not flashy and it's not colorful; there's nothing to look at except for tidily close-cropped hair.
(In case you're wondering, he still flew his personal barber out to get it done, and the barber also did most of his teammates and dutifully chronicled it on Instagram.)
That hair has a simple message: I do not wish to stand out. I am one of the guys. I am here to conduct business and nothing else. Don't look at my hair; just watch me play football or, better yet, watch my team play football.
Because that's the most striking change compared to France's last major tournament, Euro 2016. They were the host nation; he was the superstar fresh off a Champions League final and heavily linked to a move from Juventus to Old Trafford.
Deschamps dropped him for a group-stage game after a lackluster opener, brought him back, and moved him around the pitch. From the quarterfinal on, Pogba was excellent and was very much the hub of the French wheel. Indeed, if there was a criticism to be directed his way, it was that he was trying to do too much. (There were moments in the final against Portugal when he looked like Butch and Sundance rolled into one, desperately trying to take on the entire Bolivian army.)
This time around, his role is rather more subdued. Pogba sits next to the archetypal all-action defensive midfielder, N'Golo Kante, and basically does what he does in a sort of weird little-and-large (Pogba is a full 10 inches taller) destructive partnership. Often, Blaise Matuidi joins in and the trio become a combination wrecking crew/safety blanket. Deschamps' eyes light up when he describes the work they do, which is unsurprising from a guy who was nicknamed the "water carrier" because his industriousness freed Zinedine Zidane from defensive duties.
Pogba has obviously been effective, but equally, it means we rarely get to see the creativity and unpredictability that is supposed to set him apart. He shows us his quick feet only when he gets into the final third (which isn't often) and his range of passing in transition. The rest is, for most of the part, run-of-the-mill, standard-operating-procedure stuff. It's as if Steven Nzonzi had been cloned, and to see a guy of his ability play within himself feels a bit like jumping in the Ferrari only to sit in traffic amid Volvos and minivans when you go pick up your kid from Little League practice. Sure, Pogba can do it, but it's a bit unsatisfying.
Deschamps, of course, would argue that Pogba is putting the team first and following his instructions for the greater good. Naturally, he's right. Or, rather, he's right in the sense that Pogba is sacrificing himself for what Deschamps believes is the greater good. Whether his conservatism will ultimately hurt France remains to be seen. Thus far it has worked, but to the neutral, watching France create very little outside of set pieces and counterattacks is a bit dispiriting.
Then again, France, like Pogba, have done just enough to answer every question thrown their way by this tournament, advancing round after round with cold, efficient regularity. What seems clear is that this version of Pogba is not a €100 million-plus player mainly because he's not allowed to be. And that's fine. Team first, right, Didier?
Now, it's not as if Deschamps doesn't know what Pogba can do. He's seen it; it's fresh on his mind. It's just that right now, it hasn't been needed. Should things hit a road bump against Croatia and Les Bleus fall behind, should he find himself in a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency situation, that's when he'll let Pogba do his thing.
Maybe his hair will change color and the patterns and designs suddenly and magically return even as he's on the pitch. And that's when we might see the Pogba we saw in the latter stages of Euro 2016. Hopefully, if you're a France fan, with a different outcome.
If anything, what this World Cup has shown is that Pogba has very little in the way of ego and is, contrary to what some have suggested, eminently coachable. You just hope that by the time he returns to his club, he hasn't forgotten what made him Pogba in the first place.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.